Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Jane Austen's Appalling John and Fanny Dashwood

In her early unfinished novel, The Watsons, Jane Austen had produced in Robert Watson a self-interested and smug brother to a heroine. (Lady Denham in Sanditon is another whose manners are unworthy of her status.)

For their meanness of spirit and selfishness towards others, Jane Austen offers little in mitigation for Mr. and Mrs. John Dashwood, half-brother and sister-in-law of Elinor and Marianne. She invites us repeatedly to share her contempt for them. There is a typical paragraph of analytical introduction to them.

He was not an ill-disposed young man, unless to be rather cold-hearted and rather selfish is to be ill-disposed, but he was, in general, well respected;... Had he married a more amiable woman, he might have been made still more respectable than he was... But Mrs. John Dashwood was a strong caricature of himself; more narrow-minded and selfish.

In the following chapter, Mrs. Fanny Dashwood easily works on her husband, Lady Macbeth-style, persuading him to show no generosity to his half-sisters. Here, dialogue does the business – several minutes of it with scarcely a 'stage direction' from the author.

‘It was my father's last request to me,’ replied her husband, 'that I should assist his widow and daughters.'

'He did not know what he was talking of, I dare say; ten to one but he was light-headed at the time. Had he been in his right senses, he could not have thought of such a thing as begging you to give away half your fortune from your own child.'

Later, in London, John Dashwood's behaviour, both in neglecting his sisters and then in being interested only in getting them married off to rich men, makes Elinor ashamed of him. His talk is all money. He puts a price on everything. (He and his wife are in fact the only characters in Jane's novels who grasp at wealth for its own sake.) Knowing nothing of the facts, he urges Elinor to marry the wealthy Colonel Brandon:

'A very little trouble on your side secures him... some of those little attentions and encouragements which ladies can so easily give will fix him...'.

He tells Elinor he hopes Mrs. Jennings will leave her money to the Dashwood girls (even though, as Elinor points out, Mrs. Jennings has daughters of her own). He declares his sisters and mother 'want for nothing' in their Devon cottage, though he has never been there to find out. After letting slip that his mother-in-law has given him two hundred pounds, he tries to impress upon Elinor what enormous expenses he has to meet, nobly adding, 'I do not mean to complain, however'.

Elinor can hardly prevent herself from smiling.

After making so much of his own poverty, he feels justified in not even buying 'a pair of earrings for each of his sisters'.

The final chapter sees him still ensuring there will be no expense or inconvenience to himself in providing for his sister Marianne. He asks Elinor (now Mrs. Edward Ferrars) to promote a marriage of Marianne to Colonel Brandon: 'I think it would altogether be advisable for you to have them now frequently staying with you... You understand me'.

Jane Austen is not reluctant to appear at the front of the stage to condemn 'cold-hearted selfishness': when Mrs. John Dashwood is permitted by her husband to make the acquaintance of Lady Middleton (even though the latter's father made his fortune in a 'low' way), we are told:

There was a kind of cold-hearted selfishness on both sides, which mutually attracted them; and they sympathized with each other in an insipid propriety of demeanour, and a general want of understanding.

Jane Austen’s condemnation can be sharp, however elegant the language. When Mrs. Ferrars has bestowed on her foppish son Robert the inheritance that should have been Edward's, we read:

Elinor was left to improve her acquaintance with Robert, who, by the gay unconcern, the happy self-complacency of his manner while enjoying so unfair a division of his mother's love and liberality, to the prejudice of his banished brother, earned only by his own dissipated course of life, and that brother's integrity, was confirming her most unfavourable opinion of his head and heart.